Summer NAMM 2019: Tony Brown, Rivers Rutherford & More Discuss Changing Landscape of Songwriting

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Courtesy of NAMM
"Writing for the Singer" panel at the 2019 National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) in Nashville, Tenn.

The National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) returned to Nashville this week for its 2019 Summer NAMM trade show. With 100 of the industry’s top dealers, countless exhibits, performances and panels, the event, held July 18-20 at Nashville’s Music City Center, provided a bevy of information to those in attendance.    

On Friday (July 19), the songwriters’ panel Writing for the Singer was hosted by journalist Dan Daley and included a versatile roster from the songwriting and producing world. Songwriters Rivers Rutherford (Johnny Cash, Tim McGraw), Taylor Rhodes (Aerosmith, Celine Dion), Beth Nielsen Chapman (Faith Hill, Trisha Yearwood), John Capek (Rod Stewart, Cher) and producer Tony Brown (Reba, Cyndi Lauper) appeared on the panel and discussed the ever-changing profession of songwriting with the rise of technology. Below are four key takeaways.   

Making a living as a songwriter has become increasingly more difficult  

The rise of streaming platforms has made it increasingly difficult for songwriters to get paid as the revenue streams are harder to navigate. Additionally, while decades ago songwriters could make a comfortable living with an album cut or a song in the top 70 on the charts, today that's not the case. The longer it takes for a song or album to hit the top of the charts, the more difficult it becomes to sustain a career as a songwriter.  

   

“I spend more time than ever on the politics of songwriting,” Rutherford says. “The opportunity is harder to get than ever. The competition has gotten very stiff. Today it’s a top 15 format. You don’t make money unless you’re in the top 15.” Adds Brown, “It takes 30 weeks or 40 weeks to get to the top. On an album, you may only get two singles.”   

Chapman, meanwhile, remains optimistic. “For the songwriters out there, you may be living in the dark ages of getting paid properly through streaming, but the value of the song is earning more money than it’s ever earned,” she says. “It’s just being siphoned into different places that don’t end up into the pockets of those that create it. We have to fix some of those rivers that are running off course.”   

Songs are shorter today because writers are focused on creating hooks

“They’re not writing songs. They’re writing hooks,” Brown says, then citing Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant to Be,” a Billboard Hot Country Songs record-breaking. 50-week No. 1 hit. “The entire chorus is those three words: meant to be. ‘God Bless the Broken Road' takes a little longer.”

Brown says another panel he was on dissected Taylor Swift’s transition from country to pop music. [Music industry analyst] “Bob Lefsetz was saying last year that Taylor Swift is writing more hooks than she’s writing songs. She’s given into this thing where you’ve got to get to that hook.”

Economics are changing the way songs are being written and recorded

Many of the songwriters on the panel shared their fears on the need for a new artist to release an uptempo song first instead of a ballad because that’s what does better on radio. Chapman, instead, urged all to not chase trends.

“As I say to my songwriting students when I’m teaching: Do your best body of work. I think we have to look beyond the flavor of the week. As artists and as writers, do your body of work, learn as much as you can and be inspired,” she says. “If you can afford to find a way to pay the light bill and do your art in the most pure way, I vote for that.”

Adds Capek: “How do we create more business for songwriters? Do we want to create something beautiful or create something that’s commercial and going to be there for five minutes and then go away? My motivation has always been to create something of beauty.”

Advice on becoming a songwriter

Rutherford: “Copy every song on the radio that you enjoy until you wake up one day and go, ‘Screw them, I hate it. This is what I do.’”

Brown: “Study. Watch documentaries. Study how different songwriters write. Learn about hooks. Study writers and compare who you most relate to. If you make an impact, the money will come.”

Rhodes: “Always write something you feel. If you’re going to write with an artist, study what that artist does. Find something you can relate to with an artist. Go in and write from your heart.”

Chapman: “Being a songwriter to me is a sacred experience. When you write deeply and truthfully from your life, that’s where the real power is.”

Capek: “There are three stages of creativity: emulation, disrupt and create chaos, and create something beautiful and simple.”


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